- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

RICHMOND — The construction dust inside Virginia’s 18th-century Capitol is still thick in places.

The stately House of Delegates chamber, filled to the ceiling with scaffolding, is barely discernible.

An elevator shaft has been cut into floor space where governors’ minions once toiled.

But from the mess and debris, hidden texts have emerged that afford a fresh glimpse into forgotten times even as they address issues that, today as then, dominate debate on Capitol Square.

A yellowing, cardboard-bound volume of thousands of pages of legislative and executive branch reports from 1863 contains Gov. John Letcher’s order that 5,340 slaves from across the state be used to dig fortifications around Richmond, the Confederate capital, during the height of the Civil War.

It documents that Virginia Military Institute consumed 5,250 pounds of bacon and just three-fourths of a pound of tea in June of 1863. And salt — then the primary preservative of food — was so scarce that the Joint Legislative Committee on Salt decreed that the mineral be rationed: 30 pounds per year for each man, woman and child in Virginia.

One report breaks down by sex the causes of insanity for scores of people committed to the state asylum over two years, including: “Fever and loss of law suit,” one man; love, two men and one woman; jealousy, one man and three women; “Pecuniary troubles,” 11 men and three women.

And a report to the General Assembly in early 1864 by newly inaugurated Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith proves that transportation funding isn’t just this year’s problem.

“The demands for the transportation of passengers and freight over this and other railroads of the state has been very good, and the roads have been taxed severely to meet them,” Smith wrote.

Construction workers discovered the book and other documents during the ongoing $99 million foundation-to-roof makeover of Virginia’s 200-year-old Capitol, said Richard F. Sliwoski, who is overseeing the project for the Department of General Services. It was concealed behind ceiling tiles in what had been the governor’s third-floor suite of offices.

“As they were taking down the ceilings, the book fell with it,” Mr. Sliwoski said.

The book is not unique: the Library of Virginia turned it down because it already has a copy. Nor is it likely to have been hidden away to keep it out of Yankee hands as Richmond fell in 1865 because the Capitol was gutted and renovated in 1906, Mr. Sliwoski said.

Nor is it all they discovered. Peeling back the layers of paint and fabric that have decorated the halls of power, preservationists discovered that the House of Delegates chamber paint scheme was primarily a cream color accented by a reddish shade on wall panels, not baby blue and off-white that was on the walls when lawmakers last met there in 2005. When they return in January, the chamber will be restored to the original colors, Mr. Sliwoski said.

On the chamber’s vaulted ceiling, artisans are restoring by hand gold-leaf coloring to its ornate molding.

The central portion of the capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson, based on a Roman temple in France, and completed in 1788. it was home to the Confederate Congress. New House and Senate wings were added in the early 1900s.

The renovation project, scheduled for completion in December, will include a new 19,000-square-foot underground addition that will house historical exhibits.


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